The Phantom Herd - B.M. Bower - ebook

The Phantom Herd ebook

B.M. Bower



In „The Phantom Herd” from 1916 we follow a film director Luck Lindsay who wants to make an authentic western, therefore using the Happy Family boys and some of their friends as actors instead of professional actors. There are many difficulties along the way, some of which bid fair to be insurmountable and they are up against big problems, mostly the weather and deadline. The story is absolutely thrilling and at the same time Bower, with the help from a real western actor, has made a great research on how you made films in those early silent film days. One of many recommended works by this prolific author.

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FOR the accuracy of certain parts of this story which deal most intimately with the business of making motion pictures, I am indebted to Buck Connor. whose name is a sufficient guarantee that all technical points are correct. His criticism, advice and other assistance have been invaluable, and I take this opportunity of expressing my appreciation and thanks for the help he has given me. –B.M. Bower.


LUCK LINDSAY had convoyed his thirty-five actor-Indians to their reservation at Pine Ridge, and had turned them over to the agent in good condition and a fine humor and nice new hair hatbands and other fixings; while their pockets were heavy with dollars that you may be sure would not be spent very wisely. He had shaken hands with the braves, and had promised to let them know when there was another job in sight, and to speak a good word for them to other motion-picture companies who might want to hire real Indians. He had smiled at the fat old squaws who had waddled docilely in and out of the scenes and teetered tirelessly round and round in their queer native dances in the hot sun at his behest, when Luck wanted several rehearsals of “atmosphere” scenes before turning the camera on them.

They hated to go back to the tame life of the reservation and to stringing beads and sewing buckskin with sinew, and to gossiping among themselves of things their heavy-lidded black eyes had looked upon with such seeming apathy. They had given Luck an elaborately beaded buckskin vest that would photograph beautifully, and three pairs of heavy, beaded moccasins which he most solemnly assured them he would wear in his next picture. The smoke-smell of their tepee fires and perfumes still clung heavily to the Indian-tanned buckskin, so that Luck carried away with him an aroma indescribable and unmistakable to any one who has ever smelled it.

Just when he was leaving, a shy, big-eyed girl of ten had slid out from the shelter of her mother’s poppy-patterned skirt, had proffered three strings of beads, and had fled. Luck had smiled his smile again–a smile of white, even teeth and so much good will that you immediately felt that he was your friend–and called her back to him. Luck was chief; and his commands were to be obeyed, instantly and implicitly; that much he had impressed deeply upon the least of these. While the squaws grinned and murmured Indian words to one another, the big-eye girl returned reluctantly; and Luck, dropping a hand to his coat pocket while he smiled reassurance, emptied that pocket of gum for her. His smile had lingered after he turned away; for like flies to an open syrup can the papooses had gathered around the girl.

Well, that job was done, and done well. Every one was satisfied save Luck himself. He swung up to the back of the Indian pony that would carry him through the Bad Lands to the railroad, and turned for a last look. The bucks stood hip-shot and with their arms folded, watching him gravely. The squaws pushed straggling locks from their eyes that they might watch him also. The papooses were chewing gum and staring at him solemnly. Old Mrs. Ghost-Dog, she of the ponderous form and plaid blanket that Luck had used with such good effect in the foreground of his atmosphere scenes, lifted up her voice suddenly, and wailed after him in high-keyed lament that she would see his face no more; and Luck felt a sudden contraction of the throat while he waved his hand to them and rode away.

Well, now he must go on to the next job, which he hoped would be more pleasant than this one had been. Luck hated to give up those Indians. He liked them, and they liked him,–though that was not the point. He had done good work with them. When he directed the scenes, those Indians did just what he wanted, and just the way he wanted it done; Luck was too old a director not to know the full value of such workers.

But the Acme Film Company, caught with the rest of the world in the pressure of hard times, wanted to economize. The manager had pointed out to Luck, during the course of an evening’s discussion, that these Indians were luxuries in the making of pictures, and must be taken off the payroll for the good of the dividends. The manager had contended that white men and women, properly made up, could play the part of Indians where Indians were needed; whereas Indians could never be made to play the part of white men and women. Therefore, since white men and women were absolutely necessary, why keep a bunch of Indians around eating up profits? The manager had sense on his side, of course. Other companies were making Indian pictures occasionally with not a real Indian within miles of the camera, but Luck Lindsay groaned inwardly, and cursed the necessity of economizing. For Luck had one idol, and that idol was realism. When the scenario called for twenty or thirty Indians, Luck wanted Indians,–real, smoke-tanned, blanketed bucks and squaws and papooses; not made-up whites who looked like animated signs for cigar stores and acted like,–well, never mind what Luck said they acted like.

“I can take the Injuns back,” he conceded, “and worry along somehow without them. But if you want me to put on any more Western stuff, you’ll have to let me weed out some of these Main Street cowboys that Clements wished on to me, and go out in the sagebrush and round up some that ain’t all hair hatbands and high-heeled boots and bluff. I’ve got to have some whites to fill the foreground, if I give up the Injuns; or else I quit Western stuff altogether. I’ve been stalling along and keeping the best of the bucks in the foreground, and letting these said riders lope in and out of scenes and pile off and go to shooting soon as the camera picks them up, but with the Injuns gone, the whites won’t get by.

“Maybe you have noticed that when there was any real riding, I’ve had the Injuns do it. And do you think I’ve been driving that stagecoach hell-bent from here to beyond because I’d no other way to kill time? Wasn’t another darned man in the outfit I’d trust, that’s why. If I take the Indians back, I’ve got to have some real boys.” Luck’s voice was plaintive, and a little bit desperate.

“Well, dammit, have your real boys! I never said you shouldn’t. Weed out the company to suit yourself. You’ll have to take the Injuns back; nobody else can handle the touch-me-not devils. You can lay off the company if you want to, and while you’re up there pick up a bunch of cowboys to suit you. You’re making good, Luck; don’t take it that I’m criticizing anything you’ve done or the way you did it. You’ve been turning out the best Western stuff that goes on the screen; anybody knows that. That isn’t the point. We just simply can’t afford to keep those Indians any longer without retrenching on something else that’s a lot more vital. You know what they cost as well as I do; you know what present conditions are. Figure it out for yourself.”

“I don’t have to,” Luck retorted in a worried tone. “I know what we’re up against. I know we ought to give them up–but I sure hate to do it! Lor-dee, but I can do things with that bunch! Remember Red Brother?” Luck was off on his hobby, the making of Indian pictures. “Remember the panoram effect I got on that massacre of the wagon train? Remember the council-of-war scene, and the close-up of Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon making his plea for the lives of the prisoners? And the war dance with radium flares in the camp fires to give the light-effect? That film’s in big demand yet, they tell me. I’ll never be able to put over stuff like that with made-up actors, Martinson. You know I can’t.”

“I don’t know; you’re only just beginning to hit your gait, Luck,” the manager soothed. “You have turned out some big stuff,–some awful big stuff; but at that you’re just beginning to find yourself. Now, listen. You can have your ‘real boys’ you’re always crying for. I can see what you mean when you pan these fellows you call Main Street cowboys. What you better do is this: Close down the company for two weeks, say. Keep on the ones you want, and let the rest out. And take these Injuns home, and then get out after your riders. Numbers and salaries we’ll leave to you. Go as far as you like; it’s a cinch you’ll get what you want if you’re allowed to go after it.”

So here was Luck, arriving in due time at the railroad. He said good-by to Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon who had ridden with him, and whose kingly bearing and clean-cut features and impressive pantomime made him a popular screen-Indian, and sat down upon a baggage truck to smoke a cigarette while he waited for the westbound train.

Young-Dog-Howls-At-The-Moon he watched meditatively until that young man had bobbed out of sight over a low hill, the pony Luck had ridden trailing after at the end of the lead-rope. Luck’s face was sober, his eyes tired and unsmiling. He had done that much of his task: he had returned the Indians, and automatically wiped a very large item of expense from the accounts of the Acme Film Company. He did not like to dwell, however, on the cost to his own pride in his work.

The next job, now that he was actually face to face with it, looked not so simple. He was in a country where, a few years before, his quest for “real boys”–as he affectionately termed the type nearest his heart–would have been easy enough. But before the marching ranks of fence posts and barbed wire, the real boys had scattered. A more or less beneficent government had not gathered them together, and held them apart from the changing conditions, as it had done with the Indians. The real boys had either left the country, or had sold their riding outfits and gone into business in the little towns scattered hereabouts, or else they had taken to farming the land where the big herds had grazed while the real boys loafed on guard.

Luck admitted to himself that in the past two years, even, conditions had changed amazingly. Land was fenced that had been free. Even the reservation was changed a little. He threw away that cigarette and lighted another, and turned aggrievedly upon a dried little man who came up with the open expectation of using the truck upon which Luck was sitting uncomfortably. There was the squint of long looking against sun and wind at a far skyline in the dried little man’s face. There was a certain bow in his legs, and there were various other signs which Luck read instinctively as he got up. He smiled his smile, and the dried little man grinned back companionably.

“Say, old-timer, what’s gone with all the cattle and all the punchers?” Luck demanded with a mild querulousness.

The dried little man straightened from the truck handles and regarded Luck strangely.

“My gorry, son, plumb hazed off’n this section the earth, I reckon. Farmers and punchers, they don’t mix no better’n sheep and cattle. Why, I mind the time when–”

The train was late, anyway, and the dried little man sat down on the truck, and fumbled his cigarette book, and began to talk. Luck sat down beside him and listened, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and a cold cigarette in his fingers. It was not of this part of the country that the dried little man talked, but of Montana, over there to the west. Of northern Montana in the days when it was cowman’s paradise; the days when round-up wagons started out with the grass greening the hilltops, and swung from the Rockies to the Bear Paws and beyond in the wide arc that would cover their range; of the days of the Cross L and the Rocking R and the Lazy Eight,–every one of them brand names to glisten the eyes of old-time Montanans.

“Where would you go to find them boys now?” the dried little man questioned mournfully. “The Rocking R’s gone into sheep, and the old boys have all left. The Cross L moved up into Canada, Lord knows how they’re making out; I don’t. Only outfit in northern Montana I know that has hung together at all is the Flying U. Old man Whitmore, he’s hangin’ on by his eyewinkers to what little range he can, and is going in for thoroughbreds. Most of his boys is with him yet, they tell me–”

“What they doing? Still riding?” Luck let out a long breath and lighted his cigarette. A little flare of hope had come into his eyes.

“Riding–yes, what little there is to do. Ranching a little too, and kicking about changed times, same as I’m doing. Last time I saw that outfit they was riding, you bet!” The dried little man chuckled, “That was in Great Falls, some time back. They was all in a contest, and pulling down the money, too. I was talking to old man Whitmore all one evening. He was telling me–”

From away out yonder behind a hill came the throaty call of the coming train. The dried little man jumped up, mumbled that it did beat all how time went when yuh got to talking over old days, and hustled two trunks out of the baggage room. Luck got his grip out of the office, settled himself into his coat, and took a last, long pull at the cigarette stub before he threw it away. It was not much of a clue that he had fallen upon by chance, but Luck was not one to wait until he was slapped in the face with a fact. He had intended swinging back through Arizona, where in certain parts cattle still were wild enough to bunch up at sight of a man afoot. His questioning of the dried little man had not been born of any concrete purpose, but of the range man’s plaint in the abstract. Still–

“Say, brother, what’s the Flying U’s home town?” he called after the dried little man with his amiable, Southern drawl.

“Huh? Dry Lake. Yuh taking this train?”

“So long–taking it for a ways, yes.” Luck hurried down to where a kinky-haired porter stood apathetically beside the steps of his coach. Dry Lake? He had never heard of the place, but he could find out from the railroad map or the conductor. He swung his grip into the waiting hand of the porter and went up the steps hurriedly. He meant to find out where Dry Lake was, and whether this train would take him there.


IF you are at all curious over the name to which Luck Lindsay answered unhesitatingly,–his very acceptance of it proving his willingness to be so identified,–I can easily explain. Some nicknames have their origin in mystery; there was no mystery at all surrounding the name men had bestowed upon Lucas Justin Lindsay. In the first place, his legal cognomen being a mere pandering to the vanity of two grandfathers who had no love for each other and so must both be mollified, never had appealed to Luck or to any of his friends. Luck would have been grateful for any nickname that would have wiped Lucas Justin from the minds of men. But the real reason was a quirk in Luck’s philosophy of life. Anything that he greatly desired to see accomplished, he professed to leave to chance. He would smile his smile, and lift his shoulders in the Spanish way he had learned in Mexico and the Philippines, and say: “That’s as luck will have it. Quien sabe?” Then he would straightway go about bringing the thing to pass by his own dogged efforts. Men fell into the habit of calling him Luck, and they forgot that he had any other name; so there you have it, straight and easily understandable.

As luck would have it, then,–and no pun intended, please,–he found himself en route to Dry Lake without any trouble at all; a mere matter of one change of trains and very close connections, the conductor told him. So Luck went out and found a chair on the observation platform, and gave himself up to his cigar and to contemplation of the country they were gliding through. What he would find at Dry Lake to make the stop worth his while did not worry him; he left that to the future and to the god Chance whom he professed to serve. He was doing his part; he was going there to find out what the place held for him. If it held nothing but a half dozen ex-cow-punchers hopelessly tamed and turned farmers, why, there would probably be a train to carry him further in his quest. He would drop down into Wyoming and Arizona and New Mexico,–just keep going till he did find the men he wanted. That was Luck’s way.

The shadows grew long and spread over the land until the whole vast country lay darkling under the coming night. Luck went in and ate his dinner, and came back again to smoke and stare and dream. There was a moon now that silvered the slopes and set wide expanses shimmering.

Luck, always more or less a dreamer, began to people the plain with the things that had been but were no more: with buffalo and with Indians who camped on the trail of the big herds. He saw their villages, the tepees smoke-grimed and painted with symbols, some of them, huddled upon a knoll out there near the timber line. He heard the tom-toms and he saw the rhythmic leaping and treading, the posing and gesturing of the braves who danced in the firelight the tribal Buffalo Dance.

After that he saw the coming of the cattle, driven up from the south by wind-browned, saddle-weary cowboys who sang endless chanteys to pass the time as they rode with their herds up the long trail. He saw the cattle humped and drifting before the wind in the first blizzards of winter, while gray wolves slunk watchfully here and there, their shaggy coats ruffled by the biting wind. He saw them when came the chinook, a howling, warm wind from out the southwest, cutting the snowbanks as with a knife that turned to water what it touched, and laying bare the brown grass beneath. He saw the riders go out with the wagons to gather the lank-bodied, big-kneed calves and set upon them the searing mark of their owner’s iron.

Urged by the spell of the dried little man’s plaintive monologue, the old range lived again for Luck, out there under the moon, while the train carried him on and on through the night.

What a picture it all would make–the story of those old days as they had been lived by men now growing old and bent. With all the cheap, stagy melodrama thrown to one side to make room for the march of that bigger drama, an epic of the range land that would be at once history, poetry, realism!

Luck’s cigar went out while he sat there and wove scene after scene of that story which should breathe of the real range land as it once had been. It could be done–that picture. Months it would take in the making, for it would swing through summer and fall and winter and spring. With the trail-herd going north that picture should open–the trail-herd toiling over big, unpeopled plains, with the riders slouched in their saddles, hat brims pulled low over eyes that ached with the glare of the sun and the sweep of wind, their throats parched in the dust cloud flung upward from the marching, cloven hoofs. Months it would take in the making,–but sitting there with the green tail-lights switching through cuts and around low hills and out over the level, Luck visioned it all, scene by scene. Visioned the herd huddled together in the night while the heavens were split with lightning, and the rain came down in white-lighted streamers of water. Visioned the cattle humped in the snow, tails to the biting wind, and the riders plodding with muffled heads bent to the drive of the blizzard, the fine snow packing full the wrinkles in their sourdough coats.

It could be done. He, Luck Lindsay, could do it; in his heart he knew that he could. In his heart he felt that all of these months–yes, and years–of picture-making had been but a preparation for this great picture of the range. All these one-reel pioneer pictures had been merely the feeble efforts of an apprentice learning to handle the tools of his craft, the mental gropings of his mind while waiting for this, his big idea. His work with the Indians was the mere testing and trying of certain photographic effects, certain camera limitations. He felt like an athlete taught and trained and tempered and just stepping out now for the big physical achievement of his life.

He grew chilled as the night advanced, but he did not know that he was cold. He was wondering, as a man always wonders in the face of an intellectual birth, why this picture had not come to him before; why he had gone on through these months and years of turning out reel upon reel of Western pictures, with never once a glimmering of this great epic of the range land; why he had clung to his Indians and his one-reel Indian pictures with now and then a three-reel feature to give him the elation of having achieved something; why he had left them feeling depressedly that his best work was in the past; why he had looked upon real range-men as a substitute only for those lean-bodied bucks and those fat, stupid-eyed squaws and dirty papooses.

With the spell of his vision deep upon his soul, Luck sat humiliated before his blindness. The picture he saw as he stared out across the moonlit plain was so clean-cut, so vivid, that he marvelled because he had never seen it until this night. Perhaps, if the dried little man had not talked of the old range–

Luck took a long breath and flung his cigar out over the platform rail. The dried little man? Why, just as he stood he was a type! He was the Old Man who owned this herd that should trail north and on through scene after scene of the picture! No make-up needed there to stamp the sense of reality upon the screen. Luck looked with the eye of his imagination and saw the dried little man climbing, with a stiffness that could not hide his accustomedness, into the saddle. He saw him ride out with his men, scattering his riders for the round-up; the old cowman making sharper the contrast of the younger men, fixing indelibly upon the consciousness of those who watched that this same dried little man had grown old in the saddle; fixing indelibly the fact that not in a day did the free ranging of cattle grow to be one of the nation’s great industries.

Of a sudden Luck got up and stood swaying easily to the motion of the car while he took a long, last look at the moon-bathed plain where had been born his great, beautiful picture. He stretched his arms as does one who has slept heavily, and went inside and down to the beginning of the narrow aisle where were kept telegraph forms in their wooden-barred niches in the wall. He went into the smoking compartment and wrote, with a sureness that knew no crossed-out words, a night letter to the dried little man who had sat on the baggage truck and talked of the range. And this is what went speeding back presently to the dried little man who slept in a cabin near the track and dreamed, perhaps, of following the big herds:

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